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Merit aid pulled from budget bill

Updated 9:30 p.m. – A last-minute dispute over undocumented students has cut $3 million in merit-based scholarships out of the main 2013-14 state budget bill.

The House voted to remove the funding from Senate Bill 13-230 early Friday afternoon. The Senate followed suit several hours later.

Some House members indicated a separate bill to restore the funding and perhaps include undocumented students would be introduced shortly.

At the center of the flap is Rep. Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee. She’s also a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 13-033, the bill that would make undocumented students eligible for resident college tuition rates. That measure has passed both houses.

There are twists and turns to the story behind the controversy, so here’s a quick recap:

• The House initially passed the budget bill last week after adding an amendment that included $3 million for merit-based state college scholarships. In recent years state financial aid, which totals about $100 million a year, has covered only need-based scholarships and work-study programs. With state revenues improving, lawmakers wanted to restore some money for merit aid.

• The bill went back to the JBC earlier this week to reconcile House and Senate amendments. The committee was willing to accept the $3 million change, but Duran insisted that such aid also be open to undocumented students. The committee added a footnote to that effect.

• Friday, after being advised the footnote wouldn’t have any legal force, Duran pressured to take the $3 million out of the bill, which was what happened after some parliamentary steps and some hard rhetoric.

“It’s pretty frustrating being here right now talking about this issue,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs,” saying merit aid is “something we should all be able to get behind.” Waller was the amendment’s sponsor.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, called the whole thing a game of “legislative chicken.”

Both Duran and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said they expect a separate bill on the issue will be introduced.

The House voted 34-24 to accept the JBC’s recommendation that the $3 million be dropped, and then voted 39-19 to re-pass the entire budget bill. Only six Republicans supported the bill, down from nine when it was voted on last week.

English language proficiency bill advances

The House Friday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 13-1211, a measure that would update the state’s program to providing assistance to districts with English language learners.

A key provision of the bill allows students to be eligible for assistance for up to five years instead of two allowed under current law. The bill also gives the Department of Education greater oversight over such programs, creates awards for top programs and provides funds for professional development.

There are an estimated 124,701 English language learners in 139 of the state’s 178 school districts. ELL programs are expected to receive about $26.4 million from the 2013-14 budget bill, but HB 13-1211 provides an additional $7 million ($6.5 million a year after CDE administrative costs are deducted) to pay for professional development and the awards.

Learn more about the bill in this legislative staff summary.

Breakfast bill headed to floor debate

The Senate Appropriations Committee Friday gave 4-3 approval to House Bill 13-1006, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal. All the no votes were Republicans.

The bill would require schools with enrollment of 80 percent or more students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch to serve breakfast to all students after the start of the school day.

Although most of the cost would be covered by federal funds, some school districts are concerned about having to cover startup and other costs, particularly starting in the second year of the program, when the threshold drops to 70 percent. Some small districts also feel the bill inappropriately infringes on local control and reduces their flexibility.

The bill is being lobbied hard by a coalition of hunger and children’s rights advocacy groups.

Learn more about the bill here.

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